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March Airmen dedicated to Space-A improvements

  • Published
  • By Megan Just
  • 452nd Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
Free flights to almost anywhere in the world military aircraft fly is a major perk of being a service member or retiring from the military. For residents in the greater Los Angeles and Riverside areas, the closest access point to this perk is through March Air Reserve Base.

But the "Reserve" in March Air Reserve Base means the passenger terminal operates differently than active duty terminals. While flights leave from March just as frequently as other bases, there is just one crew to manage all air terminal operations--including Space-A travel.

"At active duty bases, the Aerial Port Support Flight Airmen staff the Air Terminal Operations Center twenty four hours a day, but here, it's the same Airmen out on the flight line, whether it's two in the morning or eight o'clock at night," said Maj. Zachariah Jensen, 452nd Logistics Readiness Squadron commander. "They are very, very busy people and they are some of the hardest workers we have on base."

Jensen said the 12-person Aerial Port Support Flight is staffed only for their primary mission: supporting the Aerial Port of Embarkation and Debarkation, which has seen an average of 80,000 Marines and Sailors departing for or arriving home from deployments over the past three years.

The aerial port Airmen are also involved with inspecting and preparing all cargo that is shipped from March and supporting day-to-day Air Mobility Command missions, as well as finding time to stay current on their military training requirements.

"The only way we are able to offer Space-A travel at all is because we have such hard working people in the Aerial Port Support Flight who realize how important Space-A is to military and prior military members," Jensen said. "They are doing their best to keep the program alive."

Plans are already in the works to help the Airmen serve Space-A passengers. The renovation of the Marine deployment hangar is set to begin soon, and it will include a series of comfortable waiting rooms specifically designed for Space-A passengers. Jensen has also submitted a request to modify the project contract to include funding for full-time employees to staff the passenger terminal during the week.

"We want the facilities to be better and the staffing to be consistent so when people call with questions, there will be a voice on the other end of the line," said Senior Master Sgt. Phillip Cheng, air terminal operations manager.

The new hangar is expected to be complete next summer, but until then, Cheng has plenty of advice that he hopes will help prospective March Space-A travelers.

Passengers who wish to fly Space-A out of March must submit an AMC Form-140 to the passenger terminal. They then call March's 24-hour flight information line to hear the flight schedule for the next three days. If passengers plan to travel to any follow-on destinations, they must repeat this process with the additional terminals they expect to be flying through.

"If you're in a hurry or need to be somewhere at a certain time, Space-A travel might not be a good idea," Cheng warned.

Military flights could be delayed or canceled for weather, mechanical or mission-related reasons. Flights can also be rerouted midair to different destinations.

At March, even if a flight is a "go" and has empty seats, Space-A travel on that flight could still be canceled last-minute if the air terminal staff has been assigned to a more pressing mission. This happened earlier this year, when a C-17 from March transported the search and rescue equipment to post-tsunami Japan.

"We can only be one place at one time," Cheng said.

As one might expect, March's terminal does not have some of the amenities travelers enjoy at major terminals such as Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

"If you're traveling Space-A out of March, you need to be able to be self sufficient," Cheng said.

Important to note is that March's terminal only opens immediately before and after a flight, which means passengers will have no place to wait during layovers. Also, in the case of an unexpected overnight layover during the base's twice-a-month unit training assembly weekends, there will be no vacancies at the March Inn.

Transportation to and from the March passenger terminal is one of the most complicated challenges to consider when flying Space-A from March.

Because the terminal's parking area is small, there is a 14-day parking limit. The only people who are authorized to drive on base to pick up passengers are military ID card holders, which includes taxi drivers. There is a Hertz rental car hotline phone located at the March Inn, but it is a long walk from the terminal and the kiosk is only open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.

Furthermore, there is not a bus at March that provides transportation to the gate, and for many passengers, the 1.6-mile trek to the gate with heavy baggage is not feasible, especially in the sweltering summer months.

But despite these challenges, Cheng said an average of 200-250 passengers a month make use of the Space-A travel benefit at March. When the Airmen are accepting Space-A passengers on a flight, they've rarely have to turn away passengers, even though about 70% of the passengers are retirees and reservists, who are assigned to the lowest of the six Space-A priority levels.

Camille and retired Col. Mason Harrell of Redlands, Calif., were category-six passengers on an Aug. 27 flight from March. The two have been frequent Space-A travelers over the years and on this flight, they were traveling to visit their daughter in Hawaii.

The C-17 Globemaster III that transported the Harrells to Hawaii next flew to Osan Air Base, South Korea, on Aug. 28 with four Space-A travelers: Analyn Williams and her three children. Williams's husband is stationed in South Korea and the family was able to visit him during his two-month temporary duty assignment in Virginia. While the family accomplished the trip to the East Coast in three legs, the return trip to Korea took six legs with one layover of 17 hours.

"The most difficult part of Space-A travel for me is the layovers," said Williams. "The kids get restless."

As the March C-17 made its way back to the California, it picked up ten passengers at JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The aircraft stopped at Los Angeles Airport to drop off cargo, then continued to March.

Maj. Michael Zwalve is an Air Force pilot from Pasadena, Calif., who is currently stationed at Camp Smith in Hawaii. He was a Space-A passenger on the flight to Los Angeles for the purpose of visiting his father's grave, which is near LAX.

"Be flexible, have a plan and do your research," advised the major who has used Space-A travel five times before. "Some locations are unique and may not have facilities or services to take care of you when you get there." 

"You never know where the aircraft may go," Zwalve continued. "[Space-A] used to be more predictable, but now missions change more and you never know where you'll end up."

Space-A passenger Staff Sgt. Chris Hart flew to March to catch another military flight to Travis Air Force Base. He was traveling from his duty station at JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam to Eureka, Calif., to visit his five-year-old son. Hart said he enjoys flying Space-A because it is free and because there is more room to stretch out than in a commercial aircraft.

Navy wife Aileen Lopez's final destination was March. She was traveling to her parents' home in Hemet, Calif., and the flight was her first time traveling Space-A. Joining her on the flight was one of the military's newest Space-A passengers: her 10-month-old daughter.

Master Sgt. Linda Welz contributed to this story.

To keep up with what's going on at March Air Reserve Base, check out the base's Facebook page, Twitter account, and official website.